America’s Wild Spaces Get the Shaft

June 3rd, 2011 at 1:18 pm | 8 Comments |

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The Obama administration has backed away from a policy to designate as “wild lands” federal acreage that merits consideration for permanent wilderness designation by Congress.

Pleased with this announcement were Western Republicans who have a bad habit of deferring to off-road vehicle groups who can’t bear the thought of recreating in silence and to commercial interests for whom commodities extracted and sold is the only way to measure the value of lands owned in common by all Americans.

The next step, which should have been taken years ago, is for Congress to settle the final status of wilderness-quality lands that have been in limbo for the better part of two decades.

First, it wouldn’t hurt for the Obama administration to change its maddeningly passive habits and exercise some leadership in this area.

In the meantime, the administration should return to the status quo that prevailed before 2003, when then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton reached an out-of-court settlement with the state of Utah and abandoned the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) authority to establish “wilderness study areas” – places that merit administrative protection until Congress decides their permanent status.

Under a 1976 federal law, the BLM must maintain an updated inventory of acreage under its jurisdiction, including “outdoor recreation and scenic values.” In practice, before 2003, the BLM had discretion to give administrative protection to wilderness-quality lands until Congress made up its mind.

Second, Republicans should get re-acquainted with the stewardship ethic of traditional conservatism. Wild places inspire self-reliance, personal responsibility, faith, and spiritual renewal in a world where those conservative values are constantly under assault.

Third, Republicans demanding that federal lands be managed for “multiple use” must recognize that wilderness is explicitly called out as consistent with the purposes of the Multiple Use, Sustained Yield Act of 1960, which sets broad policy for managing national forests.

Multiple use doesn’t mean that economic development of public lands trumps preservation everywhere. As the law states, multiple use requires balance, “not necessarily the combination of uses that will give the greatest dollar return or the greatest unit output.”

Finally, the administration and Congress looking for an example to follow could do no better than Ronald Reagan – who signed dozens of wilderness bills that protected more than 10 million acres of public lands. The Reagan administration worked with congressional Democrats during the 1980s to settle wilderness disputes that had festered in national forests for years.

On the day he signed four such bills into law, Reagan declared:

What is a conservative after all but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live… And we want to protect and conserve the land on which we live — our countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests. This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children. And our great moral responsibility is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it.

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • LFC

    Some things actually don’t change in the Republican Party…

    “We don’t have to protect the environment, the Second Coming is at hand.”
    – James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under President Ronald Reagan

  • balconesfault

    I think the bigger worry is Chaffetz bill HR 1126

    The Disposal of Excess Federal Land Act

    “Excess”, as in – why should we be leaving all this legacy for future generations when we can use it to cut taxes for the wealthy today?

  • valkayec

    Reagan’s speech is anathema to the current GOP. I’m sure if you stood before a group of freshman House members (and maybe a few others in the House) and repeated that quote without saying it was made by Reagan, some member would say it was made by Carter or Obama or Clinton or even Ford or Nixon. Certainly not Reagan.

    Unfortunately, the very meaning – definition – of conservative has changed so much over the last 30 years that it not longer applies to previous generations of conservatives. It ain’t my Daddy’s GOP anymore.

  • Chris Balsz

    It’s there to be used.

    • COProgressive

      It’s there to be enjoyed and appreciated, not raped. The beauty of OUR Western lands is as much for us as it is for our prodigy.

      I, for one, don’t want to see Hertz Rent-A-Car billboards hanging across the river, for all to see, in the Grand Canyon.

  • Stewardship

    Balcone and valkayec, many of those frosh GOPers really think they are conservatives, because they’ve listened to Rush Limbaugh define that term for years. But, they are libertarians, not conservatives. They’ve gone so far right, they begin to connect with the radical liberals coming around the other way. What is wantonly spending our heritage, our national treasures, and opportunity for future prosperity if not a liberal wasting of assets?

    Too bad that senator from Minnesota will never stand up and shout, “Rush Limbaugh is a big, fat liberal!”

  • balconesfault


    I agree with your definitions to a certain extent.

    There certainly ARE liberals who would basically divvy up our land holdings to give them away to the poor and property-less in one of those “land reform” actions you see in third-world countries following a revolution.

    But that’s so far away from the current American political reality that it’s not even worth mentioning, much less trying to base an argument around it.

    And there’s a pretty massive gap on the “coming around the other way side” that I don’t think will ever make such a connection that Limbaugh can be confused with a liberal. Limbaugh may want to consume our natural resources, but he wants to do so purely for the enrichment of the wealthy. There may be job creation, but the real point of the job creation is to leverage the efforts of labor in order to maximize wealth generation for the wealthy – Limbaugh’s vendetta against organized labor is the best demonstration of this fact. Meanwhile, the extent to which America’s poor might have a temporary increase in standard of living if we ramp up our exploitation of our natural resources is irrelevant … the real goal is to put resources into the hands of the wealthy that can be sold to the middle class and poor – or shipped abroad and sold if that’s where the great profits lie.

    So no – Franken won’t be proclaiming Limbaugh a liberal anytime – because Franken is far, far too intelligent for that.

    Meanwhile, today’s GOP are fine with “wantonly spending our heritage, our national treasures, and opportunity for future prosperity” because their primary service is to America’s wealthy class. They pick and choose from libertarianism and conservatism those talking points which can buttress their robber baron mentality, and discard those which are inconvenient.

    Which is why, of course, your plea from the wilderness will largely be ignored. It is certainly inconvenient to the real goal of today’s GOP.